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Rescuing a Zoltan Sepeshy mural on Beaver Island

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

It's been quite the odyssey.

The WPA-style mural "Hauling in the Net" -- starring three brawny Great Lakes fishermen -- went up in the old Lincoln Park post office in 1940, but was yanked off the walls some 27 years later by a postmaster who never liked it. 

Painted by noted local artist Zoltan Sepeshy, who has some 22 works at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the egg-tempera mural was rescued before it got pitched in the trash. A businessman across the street, Eddie O'Donnell, said he had ties to Beaver Island, and thought a mural honoring fishermen -- always a peculiar fit in industrial, downriver Detroit -- would win an appreciative island audience. 

Loredana Zanchi works on restoring a mural by Zoltan Sepeshy at Conservation & Museum Services in Detroit.  The mural, "Hauling in the Net," will return to the Mormon Print Shop Museum on Beaver Island once it's finished this spring.

Gregory Wittkopp, director of the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research who frequently visits Beaver Island, calls Sepeshy, who died in 1974, one of the most-underappreciated artists of his generation. 

"He was very well known during his lifetime, and had dozens of solo exhibitions at museums and galleries, and received a great deal of attention. But," he said, "Sepeshy was eclipsed after his death by some of the other major figures of that period like Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton."

Wittkopp added that the Hungarian-born artist, director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1946-1959, is long overdue for a serious reappraisal. 

"Hauling in the Net" was housed for over half a century in an old net shed that's now the island's Marine Museum, right at lake's edge, and was pretty much forgotten by the outside world -- including the Smithsonian Institution, which tracks public art in government buildings.

According to Pasqua Warstler, a retired director of an Escanaba art center who's been helping with the mural project, the Smithsonian officially declared the mural "Missing." 

Warstler found herself on the island last summer helping her good friend Lori Taylor-Blitz, executive director of the Beaver Island Historical Society, with display work at the Mormon Print Shop Museum, which the society also runs. 

Warstler recalls her reaction on her first visit to the little Marine Museum, when she stumbled into the mural: "Holy cats!"

"I said to Lori, here’s the good news: You've found like an Andrew Wyeth in your attic. Here’s the bad news: You can’t keep it there." The Marine Museum has no humidity control system, she notes, and even worse, rising L. Michigan waters are getting awful close to the floorboards. 

So the mural, painted on Homaparticle board 13.5 feet wide and 5-feet tall with a cut-out to frame a post office doorway, was removed from the wall in two sections, ferried across L. Michigan to Charlevoix, and driven down to Detroit and Kenneth B. Katz's Conservation and Museum Services restoration studio. 

The mural was in bad need of some love mostly because of a botched cleaning and repair job several decades earlier. 

"I'd call that restoration over-zealous," said Katz, a painting conservator who once worked at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and handled restoration issues when the Detroit Athletic Club did its big renovation in 1999.   

Detroit art conservator Kenneth Katz notes areas of significant damage to the Zoltan Sepeshy mural, where an earlier, botched restoration scraped the egg-tempera paint right off.

Today the painting is mounted in Katz's large, airy studio, where Loredana Zanchi, his associate conservator of painting, is meticulously adding in short brushstrokes. While the painting itself is done in egg tempera -- pigment mixed with egg yolk, famed for its permanence -- repairs are being applied in watercolor. 

"One of the major tenets of being a conservator is using reversible materials," Katz explained. "If we did traditional egg tempera, it’d get hard," he said, and couldn't easily be removed if necessary. 

"If you notice," Katz added, pointing at the mural, "there's a lot more damage on the right than the left." And indeed, the upper-right section seems to have had much of its paint scraped right off. 

"We think," he added, "the previous restorer finally noticed and just gave up."

Plans call for moving the mural back to Beaver Island early this summer. But everything hangs on the Historical Society raising the rest of the money necessary for the new addition to the Print Shop Museum that will house the mural in climate-controlled comfort. 

"We're writing grants now," said Taylor-Blitz. "We'll go back to the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, and apply for a capital-improvement grant for a modern HVAC system. In the end," she added, "we’ll have a safe environment for this amazing mural."

How to help: 

You can donate to the Mormon Print Shop Museum expansion by visiting beaverislandhistory.org.

Or you can send checks to: 

Beaver Island Historical Society

P.O. Box 263, Beaver Island, MI  49782

(231) 448-2254